"My God!" he yelled. "What's happening now?" Stevens stared. Then he started abruptly to his feet. Even afterwards, when he looked back on the incident, he could never actually decide what really happened. He had a persistent, oddly unshakable memory of a man flowing suddenly into liquid. Inside the blue and gray uniform of the Interstellar Passenger Service, the man began to melt, to change into a thick gooey substance that dripped and trickled away between the rising pillars of steel. Desperately, he fought down the rising sense of nausea that tugged at the muscles of his stomach. The picture was so utterly impossible that he screwed his eyes tightly to shut it out of his mind. When he looked again, there was nothing there and Blair was looking across at him, his jaw slack and an expression of stark disbelief in his dark eyes.
Release date: June 30, 2015
Print pages: 105
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Of Scion’s several competitors, one of the quickest off the mark was John Spencer Ltd. They issued two paperback quarterly short story collections, FUTURISTIC SCIENCE STORIES and WORLDS OF FANTASY, which appeared in the Summer of 1950. In the Autumn they issued added a third title, TALES OF TOMORROW. The following year saw the publication of a fourth, WONDERS OF THE SPACEWAYS. Each of them had an identical format, and although the titles were different, they were indistinguishable in content and presentation-and at first, this was far from prepossessing. Essentially, they were the same magazine, but issued under four different titles to get around the U.K. post-war paper shortages and quota regulations. Their early covers were embarrassingly bad, uniformly dull and drab, and were the work of Gerald Facey, an artist who was clearly unfamiliar with science fiction.
Because Spencer had moved so quickly, their stories were at first written by only a handful of writers, using pseudonyms. The publisher commissioned stories on an assembly-line basis, requesting that the stories be written as quickly as possible-preferably in a matter of days – for which they offered 15 shillings a thousand – 25% less than most of their competitors. Most of the contents of the earlier issues were whipped up in a matter of a few weeks, and were written by Norman Lazenby and Sydney J. Bounds. Both writers had been writing crime novels for the publisher, when the call came to write science fiction short stories. Another crime writer on Spencer’s books was John F. Watt, who was also asked to write sf.
Only Bounds and Lazenby had any previous experience or knowledge of sf writing, but the terms of their commission by Spencer’s meant that both men had no time or incentive to submit their best work. “I wrote the stuff directly on to the typewriter,” Bounds recalled, whilst Lazenby wrote 5,000 words a day, sending Spencer a half dozen first-draft stories inside a week. “A story a day was my motto at the time!” he shamelessly recalled. The standard of the stories was commensurate with the speed at which they had been produced and the rate of pay-low!
But whilst Bounds and Lazenby were slumming, their stories were at least superior to all of the material produced by Watt, who had no experience at all of sf. His stories were simply hackwork westerns transplanted into outer space.
Once Bounds and Lazenby had completed their commissions and collected their badly-needed cash “rewards,” they stopped writing for Spencer and moved on to other better-paying markets. But now that they had created a market for sf short stories, Spencer’s inevitably began to attract submissions from inexperienced and tyro writers. This suited the publisher, who was now able to get away with offering as little as 10/- a thousand words, and was not concerned with story quality-only in filling space in the magazines. Watt, meanwhile, continued to write an increasing amount of material, under an army of pseudonyms, principally ‘Frank C. Kneller’ and ‘Kenneth Boyea’, and all of it was perfectly dreadful.
Within a few months of their appearance, the Spencer sf magazines had become stigmatized as the worst ever published. They have passed into the dustbin of history.
But somehow they lasted through some 50 issues, only ceasing towards the end of 1954, when UK publishers began to look for other genre material, as the sales of sf began to sag. Whilst this opprobrium is generally well deserved, the fact is that the later issues of the Spencer magazines were not all bad, and some were quite good. How else to explain their longevity? For one thing, once they had established themselves in the market place, they attracted occasional contributions from a few experienced and prolific writers (most notably E. C. Tubb) where those writers found themselves short of money, when their regular higher-quality markets were overstocked. The temptation then was to send any “spare” mss to Spencer where acceptance was at least guaranteed. Thus the occasional first-class story appeared. The same thing applied to cover artists, and so Facey was soon dropped and replaced by first-class artists such as Gordon C. Davies and Ron Turner, who were so prolific they were able to work for several publishers, some well paid, some not so well paid. True, the subject matter of the covers was often wince-making, remaining “space operatic” (no doubt at the insistence of the publisher) but at least they were now being executed with real style and panache. The issues also began to feature attractively vigorous covers by talented freelance comic strip artists, such as Norman Light and Ron Embleton.
A number of sf fans, who had chanced to read the magazines, were encouraged to think that they could write better themselves. So they tried a few stories, and inevitably they were accepted. Amongst this small group of readers-turned-authors was John Stephen Glasby.
The magazines had been running for some eighteen months before Glasby chanced on a few copies at the beginning of 1952. Glasby had a scientific background. He was employed as a Research Chemist for I.C.I, and his hobby was astronomy. At a later period in his life he would become the Director of the Variable Star Section of the British Astronomical Association. He saw at once that many of the authors in the Spencer magazines had little or no astronomical knowledge, and were making fundamental blunders in nomenclature and other scientific details.
Working in collaboration with a friend, Arthur Roberts, Glasby had already made a string of sf novel sales to a rival firm, Curtis Warren Ltd, and decided that he could do a lot better than Spencer’s short story writers. Roberts was not interested in continuing their collaboration with short stories, so now working alone, Glasby sent in a couple of sample short stories, “Ghost Moon” and “Moondust.” Spencer’s promptly accepted them with a request for more of the same.
Thus began an astonishing association with the publisher that was to last for nearly twenty years. During this time, he worked without a contract, simply responding to letters from Spencer’s outlining their immediate requirements. As he would supply the material, Spencer’s would accept it, and either request more of the same or specify something different.
Over the time of his association with them, Glasby would switch back and forth from science fiction to supernatural stories, foreign legion, war stories, westerns and even hospital romances, writing hundreds of short stories and novels. He recently told me: “How Spencer’s operated was to send me a pencil tracing of the cover for each book and asked me to write a novel (or short story in the case of a collection). At one time in the late fifties I had fourteen of these drawings on hand and was writing one 40,000 word novel every ten days as well as a full time job as a research chemist with ICI! I only wrote the hospital romance and war novels at the insistence of John Spencer. My real interest was in the sf and supernatural ‘horror’ stories which I enjoyed writing, and which I’ve tried to concentrate on in recent years between writing non-fiction chemistry and astronomy books.”
In 1954,1 was a 13-year-old teenager who had only recently discovered science fiction books and magazines. I could not afford to buy new books-and in any case most publishers had ceased to issue new sf material-but lots of the older books were still available cheaply at my local second-hand bookshops.
In those days I was a very real enthusiast, but had yet to discover organized sf fandom. Nonetheless, amongst my close friends and school classmates, there were at least fifteen other sf devotees. All of us read sf voraciously, and organized expeditions to all the second hand bookshops within a six-mile radius. (i.e., that we could reach on foot.) Between us, we must have bought, read and swapped nearly all of the material that was issued in this “boom and bust” period of British sf.
Later commentators, faced with trying to explain away the fact that Fearn’s books alone sold five million copies, have sneeringly suggested that this vast readership was made up of uncritical teenagers, with no background knowledge of the medium. In other words, that we read rubbish uncritically, and enjoyed anything and everything. That is absolute nonsense. We were critical, and we were selective in our preferences. Just because our youthful enthusiasm caused us to read-or start to read-all the sf we could find, it did not mean that we enjoyed it all.
We hated some of it. The early John Spencer magazines, the early Curtis Warren product, practically anything published by Gannet Press and the worst of the mushroom publishers. After we’d been caught out, we learned to avoid it-although we were all guilty of trying to unload crap onto an unsuspecting friend: “I’ll swap you these six Gill Hunts/Spencer mags for your one Vargo Statten/E.C. Tubb!”
Where other material was available from authors and publishers I knew I would most likely enjoy, I soon learned to avoid the Spencer magazines. But occasionally, with nothing else available, I would buy the odd copy. I can still remember the pleasant shock I got when I read a battered copy of FUTURISTIC SCIENCE STORIES # 8 (October, 1952). Amongst the dung-heap of hack material, one story stood out like a beacon: “Moondust” by ‘A. J. Merak,’ a byline I had never previously encountered. To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, and thereafter I would always buy a Spencer magazine wherein I saw the name A. J. Merak featured!
Like most readers and collectors, I never knew that the admirable ‘Merak’ was a pen name of John Glasby until 1979, when I published the first major study of the Spencer publications, compiled by sf scholar and researcher, Mike Ashley. Writing in FANTASY READER’S GUIDE #1 (which I published under my Cosmos Literary Agency imprint) Ashley declared: “Research can be infuriating, bit it can also be immensely rewarding. I shall never forget the day when I finally received a helpful response from the man behind the pseudonyms behind A. J. Merak, Ray Cosmic (sic!) and others.”
In 1952, Spencer’s had decided to experiment with a line of science fiction novels, in an attempt to compete with their rival publishers, spearheaded by Scion’s immensely popular Vargo Statten books. For some extraordinary reason, UK publishers had decided that weird, harsh-sounding “Germanic” names were de rigeur for science fiction authorship, and so the Spencer’s selected ‘Victor La Salle’ and ‘Karl Zeigfried’ for their own particular house names. The latter was probably an unconscious misspelling of “Zeigfreid.”
They began to solicit novels from their regular contributors, and their first title was THE BLACK SPHERE by Victor La Salle (actually Welsh author Gerald Evans). Evans had been an occasional contributor to the wartime American sf magazines, and had originally written his novel for an overseas market, where it had failed to sell at the time. Needing some quick money, he dug it out of a drawer and decided he might as well try it with Spencer’s. It sold immediately, at their bottom-line rate of 10/- a thousand words. The author was expecting a cheque for £20 for his 40,000 worder, but was disconcerted to receive only £19. Later, when he purchased a copy of his novel on the bookstalls (Spencer’s never provided author copies!) he discovered why: Spencer’s had arbitrarily deleted an entire 2,000 word section from the middle of the novel, without any attempt at rewriting. His novel had been ruined, and the dismayed Evans never wrote another. The explanation of this outrage was simply a matter of cynical economics.
Scion Ltd had set a benchmark in publishing 40,000 word novels (for which they paid authors £40) in 128 page books (including covers), at a price of 1/6. They were printed in multiples of 16 page “signatures.” Scion were able to make a healthy profit because Fearn’s “Statten” novels were guaranteed best sellers. Spencer’s, less confident of their own inferior imitation product, decided to save on production costs and author payment by reducing their format t. . .
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